Is there anything more stylish than living in a loft? It’s a chic little word, conjuring images of brick walls, sleek concrete floors and expensive views. If you’ve seen a romantic comedy in the past 10 years, the dreamboat always lives in a loft.
Warehouse living has been chic since the 1970s, when an urban boom priced many Americans out of city centers and sent them in search of cheaper rents in grittier neighborhoods. And over the past decade, this look, called urban industrial, has come back in a big way. In fact, it’s so popular that it’s the chief inspiration behind mass retailers such as Restoration Hardware and Crate & Barrel. A visit to both stores’ websites finds homes with open-floor plans, exposed pipes, concrete floors and steel finishes, all signatures of the industrial aesthetic.
Of course, outfitting a warehouse with items from a chain store can feel like cheating; found objects are a better match for the building’s heritage. But you don’t need to go antiquing to do the space justice. The right mix of old and new furnishings can still make you feel as though you’re living in a part of history.
“It’s about balance,” says Christopher Ritchie, a designer and furniture maker in Frederick, Md., who cut his teeth designing for Restoration Hardware and Starbucks. He now owns his own company, called Industrial Home. “The best way to achieve that is by adding in personal details like photos and collectibles to make it feel authentic. If you have that, the big stuff — raw wood dining tables, leather sofas — can be from anywhere. In that sense, it’s easy.”
Another catch about industrial design is that even though it looks stark and cold thanks to concrete floors and aluminum pipes, a well-designed warehouse is warm and comfortable, he says. “People drool over these spaces on Pinterest and get fixated on the catalogue version of a loft, but the trick is to make it feel cozy.”
To do this, start by de-cluttering so you can focus on your favorite furniture pieces, and try to focus on items that are both neutral and necessary. Then, cluster them to create an intimate and defined dining area, living area, entrance and so on.
“Layering is key,” Ritchie says. “If you have light floors like wood or concrete, put a dark rug on top, then a light sofa, dark pillows, and go light, dark, light, dark and so on. Be sure to add in traditional accents along the way to keep it from looking like a factory or a dungeon.”
Laura Umansky, an interior designer who owns a firm with offices in Aspen, Colo., and Houston, says she gets tons of requests to incorporate industrial elements into residential projects. Her biggest tip for making a loft look inviting is to ignore the ceiling height.
“Converted warehouses tend to have super high ceilings, but that doesn’t mean you have to fill that volume,” she says. “Bring the room down to human scale by dropping the light fixtures lower to the dining table and hanging the art at the same height you would in a room with a nine-foot ceiling. For one loft project in Houston, we even painted a warm gray rectangle box on the walls so that it brings your eyes down to the TV and shelves. If the whole wall had been that color, the pieces would have gotten lost.”
Paint, of course, depends on lighting. Most people’s instincts tell them to go gray in a loft space, but remember that gray requires tons of light to look moody and elegant. Consider instead a silvery white or cream, such as Sherwin-Williams’s Misty.
If you want to experiment with the industrial look but don’t know where to begin, Umansky recommends trying a statement light, such as a large floor lamp (Rayne Floor Lamp, $799, roomandboard.com), brass and metal table lamps (Industrial Task Table Lamp, $99, westelm.com), or a group of two or three simple, matching chandeliers above the dining room table (try an aluminum shade with the Brunswick Pendant Light, $44 each, or the Industrial Rust Steel Pendant in black for a bolder look, $207 each, both at dotandbo.com).
From there, pepper in playful accessories with nods to nature, such as the Lind Cowhide Round Ottoman ($429, roomandboard.com) and a resin ram skull for a tabletop ($88, target.com). More straightforward pieces, such as a metal-and-wood oversize floor mirror ($429, westelm.com), help to brighten up a living room and drive home the warehouse feeling.
Above all, remember that for industrial spaces, authenticity is the name of the game. Try to weave in personal accents such as wall art that depicts the town where you spent summers as a kid, or a colorful fleece day bed for the family dog.
“A loft needs signs of human life to feel homey,” Ritchie says. “Otherwise, it’s just a warehouse.”
Some places to see industrial design, locally and on the Web:
Industrial Home (industrialhome.com) has a retail outlet in Frederick.
GoodWood (goodwooddc.com) is located on U Street NW.
Factory20 (factory20.com) is in Abingdon, Va.
Three Potato Four (threepotatofour.com)
City Foundry (cityfoundry.com)